Maryland agriculture officials, conservation groups, and producers from the state’s more than 12,000 farms are vying for their priorities to appear in this year’s federal farm bill. The five-year farm bill, which is considered the primary vehicle for addressing agriculture issues and setting policy, expires in September.
The bill authorizes billions of dollars in a dozen areas, ranging from crop price supports to forestry, with most funding set aside for nutrition programs. The measure’s three primary stakeholders are nutrition, farm, and conservation groups.
This year, groups in Maryland will push to increase farm bill programs for smaller specialty farms, which produce crops like fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts, and establish more incentives for farmers to embrace conservation practices.
Agriculture is Maryland’s most significant industry, but the state’s farms occupy an average of 161 acres. Most Maryland farms are considered small or medium within farm bill programs, which disproportionately subsidize large farms growing commodity crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans.
“Crop insurance has worked very well for the major row crop industry, but it’s been lacking when it comes to specialty crops. Crop insurance isn’t available, or the cost of the insurance isn’t in line with the coverage provided,” said Patt Wolffe, senior national affairs director for the Maryland Farm Bureau.
The pandemic exposed the need for more diverse agricultural practices across the United States. Provisions in the new farm bill should be more environmentally “targeted” and “resilient” because current regulation in the U.S. agricultural industry discourages farmers from implementing climate-resilient practices.
“We have an extraordinary opportunity with the farm bill reauthorization to say to the farming community: ‘It’s not just get big, it’s diversify. It’s create multiple profit centers in your farming operation,’” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The biggest challenge in passing this year’s farm bill is avoiding a split of the coalition of farmers, nutritionists, and conservationists. Many Republicans have proposed spending cuts to nutrition programs, while the Inflation Reduction Act has funneled unprecedented money into conservation programs.
Both the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee and the House Agriculture Committee have already begun hearings and held listening sessions as lawmakers and staff craft the new farm bill.